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Down and Out in Paris, London and Elsewhere: Chinese Food Businesses During a Global Health Crisis

06 April, 2020
Andrew Wong and Mukta Das

But we forget that crises in humanity also have a history. Certain racialised bodies that grow food and cook cuisines have been problematised, castigated and victimised at certain points throughout history. Chinese market gardeners and cooks were pushed to the periphery in the US and Canada at the turn of the century by restrictions on immigration, a volatile, often negative media discourse and public boycotts of Chinese-run businesses.  Things only changed for these communities during the second world war when China fought with the allied forces. Returning soldiers, and colonial administrators who had lived, worked and fought in Asia and found local food to be delicious, returned home - to the US and Canada, but also to the UK, Netherlands and places across Europe. 

In late August 1949, after years of living in China, Agnes Ingles went on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 and made listeners hungry for the Chinese dishes that she lovingly described and the Chinese food and health philosophies that she energetically prescribed. The broadcast proved to be a crucial turning point. Ingles and people like her prompted a boom in the writing and publishing of Chinese cookbooks in North American and Western Europe, and a surge in popularity for eating out at Chinese restaurants. 

They were the vanguard for changing tastes and attitudes.

Ask any Chinese restaurateur and they will tell you it has never been easy to run a Chinese food business. It seems despite a modern progressive turn from problematic racial attitudes in the last few decades, there is still concern and misinformation about Chinese food, from the presence and health impact of mono-sodium glutamate, to the suspicion of Chinese groceries in Chinatowns. 


Anyone with any affiliation with Chinese food is always asked ‘do Chinese people eat dogs?’ or ‘do Chinese people eat bats?’. China has been contending with the vagaries of its own food system for the last few decades. The scandal of adulterated baby formula in 2008 galvanised the government to introduce further food safety regulation. Has it made a difference? Clearly the country is large, has a complicated splintered food system full of small workshops and artisan producers as well as industrial makers. Like in every country, producers and regulators have different agendas and rarely work in tandem. Like the horsemeat scandal that rocked Europe in 2012, anywhere regulation fails to reach, black markets and ‘grey’ trades spring up. This is perhaps a good time to scrutinise all food industries and regulatory bodies everywhere. 

‘The Chinese virus’. It’s a dog whistle and a pretty audible and predictable one. The World Health Organization turned away from naming epidemics by their country or region of origin in 2015. Instead, they use names that would be useful for scientists and medics, relegating to the past such emotive names as ‘Spanish Flu’, or so they thought. Now, this dog whistle is breeding the same food-racial identity vector that isolated and victimised Chinese people at the turn of 20th century.

This overcooking of food with identity has spilled over into violence, with racist attacks on Chinese people on the rise, even in places that profess to be global cities and culinary capitals - places such as London - where ethnic food entrepreneurs - such as Chinese restaurateurs - are its lifeblood. Along with the violence comes a kind of humiliation in the rejection in a city that most of these creative hard-working individuals have committed their working lives to. 

Living here, and living in other global cities like London, we pivot on a transitional historical moment in the 21st century. Weeks into the panic buying and queues for basic necessities, we now know a long-standing truth - cities like ours are over-supplied with food. And we move this overabundance of food in supermarkets into our homes, as we stuff more groceries into already full cupboards. But we also know another long-standing truth - that we can hurt, humiliate and condemn people through our rejection of cuisines and by deploying food-based slurs. People must have pride in themselves and their place in society to produce good food for paying customers - a truth George Orwell finds in Down and Out in Paris and London.

"What keeps a hôtel [or restaurant] going is the fact that the employees take a genuine pride in their work… The cook does not look on himself as a servant but as a skilled workman… and takes genuine artistic pride in his work… [the waiter] will take pains to serve a meal in style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself."

Running a restaurant in London 2020 is the most exciting and most painful life choice. Trying to keep any restaurant afloat is a massive challenge, but running a Chinese restaurant really does bring its own set of idiosyncrasies. It’s never been so exciting from the culinary perspective, with the rise of Sichuanese food complimenting the beautiful artistic dexterity of Cantonese dim sum, and with the awareness of ever more Chinese culinary regions, and their gastronomic interactions with China’s 14 international borders. The flavour profiles of Chinese cuisine are clear, they are definitive, and they are considered delicious among an ever-growing global audience. The requisite skills and intricacy in cooking from this huge and varied cuisine are starting to be studied by Western chefs, keen to innovate their repertoire and their kitchens. Dim sum chefs, who are engaged in more of an art form than cooking a cuisine, should be on a par with Western pastry chefs - this lack of recognition is baffling. 

These intricate skills and the people who wield them need a social world. Chefs are very unique beings in that when we work 16 hour days for little pay. While our long hours and our status can interfere in our cultural, social and political life; we are hyper-connected to our cities and our citizens. We work in the ‘hospitality’ industry - we practice the art of being ‘hospitable’, creating affinities with people. Our relationships give our work, our skills and abilities meaning. This time last week, my priority was to ensure that my team, most of whom are away from their families across the EU, with no way of reaching out to them for help, would have some money and resources to survive the coming months. This week, after the UK government announced it would cover 80% of the salaries of those who couldn’t work, I turned to how my restaurant could help those most vulnerable in London; to cook to support the elderly and the frontline doctors and nurses unable to buy food in supermarkets. But now, with new UK government rules banning the congregation of three or more people, all my plans are in lockdown and I return once again to my team, starved of the opportunity to provide the hospitality that gives their livelihoods meaning and significance. 

This is all unknown territory. This virus will have a long and deep social, economic and cultural impact even as the incidence rates slow and we find a vaccine. To build from there, takes Agnes Ingles and others like her who can bring it all back to the pleasures of flavour, texture, variety and a meal so satisfying you lift your hand in thanks to the team that served you as you leave a restaurant. As Orwell correctly surmised, that’s why we do what we do. 

"Thus everyone at the hôtel had his sense of honour, and when the press of work came we were all ready for the grand concerted effort."


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